From: Letwin, Michael
Sent: Tuesday, May 13, 2008 2:00 PM
To: ALAA MEMBERS; 1199 Members
Subject: Sean Bell Bulletin: Queens Shooting Case Exposes Rifts in Black Officers’ Groups
[Note condemnation of the Sean Bell verdict by Charles Billups, Criminal Defense Division‑Brooklyn & Chairperson, The Grand Council of Guardians]
May 10, 2008
Queens Shooting Case Exposes Rifts in Black Officers’ Groups
By UMAR CHEEMA
Detective Marc Cooper spared no gratitude after his acquittal in the Sean Bell shooting, using a news conference to thank the Lord, his lawyers, his family, his union and Victor Swinton, the president of the Guardians Association, a fraternal organization for black police officers formed more than 60 years ago.
But Detective Cooper’s lawyer added that others had not been so kind. Detective Cooper “felt betrayed by the African-American community,” the lawyer, Paul P. Martin, said in an interview later, adding that “several African-American police organizations did not support him.”
The fatal shooting of Mr. Bell by undercover detectives in Queens, and the trial that resulted, exposed deep divisions in the city, perhaps nowhere more than in the groups that speak for black police officers. While the two men who were wounded in the shooting are black, as was Mr. Bell, so are Detective Cooper and one of the two other indicted detectives.
Detective Cooper was acquitted of reckless endangerment, and the others, Gescard F. Isnora and Michael Oliver, were found not guilty of manslaughter after a State Supreme Court judge ruled that the prosecution had not proved the men were unjustified in shooting.
While the head of the Guardians Association supported Detective Cooper, the Grand Council of Guardians, an umbrella group for black officers working in several law enforcement departments, including correction and parole officers, denounced the outcome.
“The Grand Council of Guardians believes that the Queens district attorney’s office presented a weak case,” said Charles B. Billups, the president of the Grand Council, adding that the state should create a special prosecutor’s office for cases like this.
Another group, 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care, was repeatedly critical of the shooting and the outcome of the trial. “The judgment is wrong,” said Marq Claxton, the chief spokesman for the group. “I reject it.”
The shooting, in which Mr. Bell was killed and two of his friends were wounded by detectives who said they believed the men had a gun, was a complicated issue for these groups. Besides speaking out for black law enforcement officers, they also have historically acted as civil rights organizations for the larger minority population.
A group of black New York Police Department officers founded the Guardians Association in 1942. Besides pressing for, and occasionally winning, better assignments and quicker promotions for black officers, it also has served in tense moments as a bridge between the community and the police, and spoken out against the latter.
In 1970, for example, the organization criticized what it called a “shoot first and ask questions later” attitude on the police force after a black plainclothes detective was killed by a white officer. Six years later, it threatened to withdraw from the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, the major police union, for its strong support of a white policeman charged with murder in the shooting of an unarmed black teenager in Brooklyn. And in 1994, the Guardians Association spoke out against the shooting of a black undercover transit officer by a white officer, saying that he was shot because of his skin color.
The Guardians also have endorsed political candidates; in 2005, the group supported Fernando Ferrer in his challenge to Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.
Inspector Swinton says the group has 2,000 black officers as members; the Police Department has almost 6,000 black officers among its roughly 36,000 members. The group meets on the third Tuesday of every month.
“There was no special meeting on the Sean Bell shooting case,” Inspector Swinton said. “There was just slight discussion.”
Even within the Guardians, there were those who did not agree with Inspector Swinton, who attended the trial to show his support for Detective Cooper. (Detective Cooper is a member of the association; Detective Isnora, the other black officer who faced trial, is not, Inspector Swinton said.)
“Some members say we should support Cooper, some say we should stay neutral,” Inspector Swinton said. Others said that they were tired of hearing of black citizens’ being shot by the police and that “we should have supported the family,” he said, referring to the Bells.
In the past, the Guardians have been criticized by some black officers, including its own members, for not standing up enough to the police hierarchy. State Senator Eric Adams, a former police officer and Guardians official who is a founder of 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care, said of the Guardians, “Even if they believe the officers did not do anything wrong, they should have demanded some reforms.”
While Detective Cooper’s lawyer did not name the police organizations he felt had betrayed his client, the 100 Blacks group was among the most vocal in protesting the shooting and the verdict. Shortly after the shooting, leaders of the group issued a vote of no confidence in the police commissioner, Raymond W. Kelly, and charged that the detectives had not undergone proper gun training.
Formed in 1995, the group considers itself a civil rights organization. It is not recognized by the Police Department as a fraternal organization, and its membership is unclear.
“We speak on behalf of everybody whose rights are violated,” said Mr. Claxton, the spokesman. He said the Bell verdict was predictable “but still very offensive to us.”
“It’s very painful,” he said. “There is no justice for the family.”
Last year, members of the Grand Council of Guardians marched with Mr. Bell’s family, and also issued recommendations to reduce the likelihood of similar shootings. While the council is made up of representatives of Guardians chapters for correction officers, parole officers and others, Inspector Swinton maintained that his organization was no longer affiliated with it. “We parted ways before the Sean Bell shooting,” he said, but did not elaborate.
Mr. Billups, the Grand Council president, disputed Inspector Swinton’s characterization, calling the police Guardians “one of our chapters.”
Regardless of how others felt about the case, Inspector Swinton said, his position concerning Detective Cooper was clear. “I would have given him support even if he was found guilty by the court,” he said.